László Lajtha



(A summary of his path of life and a draft portrait)    


·      Who was László Lajtha?

·      Childhood, formative years, decisive influences

·      The first works and field service in the First World War

·      Founding a family

·      The years of unfolding and maturity between the two World Wars

·      Eclecticism and new humanism

·      The polymath  

·      The cultural diplomat

·      Educational work, museum and radio functions, director’s posts

·      Writer on music

·      Church service

·      The year spent in London (1947-1948) and the fourteen-year-long state of neglect  in Hungary

·      Travels in Europe, new hopes – and the sudden end 

·      Opus numbering, groups of works

Who was László Lajtha?

One of the most important Hungarian composers, ethnomusicologists and music teachers of the first half of the 20th century beside Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály – this definition is generally given to identify László Lajtha’s position in the history of music. The picture is, however, much more varied as he was a pianist, conductor, church musician, concert editor and propagator of musical knowledge, an expert on the history of instruments, an outstanding figure of international cultural diplomacy, an organizer of Hungarian and European research … The numerous threads of his life form an unmistakenly individual fabric. And though his activities seem to be related in many respects to the work of his ten years older contemporaries Bartók and Kodály, they differ at least as much from theirs. The neglect he experienced throughout his life and the misunderstanding surrounding him to this day derive largely from the fact that he covered a highly individual path of life. 


Childhood, formative years, decisive influences

As the firstborn child[1] of a well-to-do and educated middle-class family, János László Lajtha came into the world in Budapest on June 30th, 1892. His father Pál Lajtha, who had conducting ambitions in his youth, played the violin well, moreover, composed music as well, owned a tannery in Bicske and also edited a professional publication. His mother, Ida Wiesel came from Transylvania: she was a non-professional singer and played the piano. Through  his mother Lajtha felt Transylvania was his real homeland. His extraordinary talent showed early. “At one and a half I could already spell and as a child of six, I had my favourite books. It was then that I started playing the piano and my first compositions date from the age of seven.”[2] French music aroused his interest very early. “At the beginning of the 1900s I wrote large scores in Debussy’s style. I must have been in my tens when I got acquainted with Debussy whom I did not understand but his sensitivity moved my deeply.”[3] Aged fifteen, Lajtha was admitted to the piano preparatory class of the Academy of Music,[4] later studied composition with Zoltán Kodály and Viktor Herzfeld. As his parents objected to his adopting a musical profession, he acquired a doctor’s degree in law (politics) at their request in 1918, in addition to graduating from the Academy of Music (1913). In the meantime, he became absorbed in Bach’s counterpoint and attended lectures on Bach at the St Thomas Church in Leipzig (1909[5]) and studied with Liszt’s one-time pupil Stavenhagen in Geneva (1910-1911). Encouraged by Bartók, Lajtha spent longer periods in Paris (1911-1913) to study with Vincent d’Indy,[6] one of the founding professors of the Schola Cantorum[7] who regarded César Franck as his model. D’Indy urged the young Hungarian master to grow familiar with early music – particularly with Gregorian Chant and the by then almost completely forgotten 16th- 18th-century masters (and not only the French ones, but also Palestrina, Monteverdi, the Couperins, Rameau etc.) and introduced him by and by into the musical world of Paris.  The knowledge and artistic experiences gathered in the French capital became decisive for Lajtha’s whole life. “I attended the première of Debussy’s last great works[8] and of Stravinsky’s Sacre de Printemps  [sic] in Paris.[9] The musical atmosphere there impressed me deeply and ranked me once for all with those who felt the need to seek  new ways and means to replace the bombastic post-romanticism.” In establishing my artistic creed “I was led by Debussy who, as I was immediately aware of, could not imitated; he was only setting an example of how one must not leave the sphere of musicality, of tone and sonority and that everybody must find their own idiom.”[10] Apart from Debussy, Ravel appeared no less exemplary for him whose premières he also attended: “As I understand, Maurice Ravel symbolizes the renewal of the musical idiom. Debussy is in my eye the genius who dominates the music of the early 20th century. But did not the genius of the profession belong to Ravel in this period?”[11]


Although Lajtha can be considered to be the mostly “French-orientated” of all composers who have lived in Hungary, and with good reason, this approach can be misleading. All the more so, as he went his own, fairly individual way on which French music was only one of the important influences. To mention only a few: in addition to French music Gregorian chant, Netherlandish and Italian renaissance vocal polyphony, the music of  Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart, whom Lajtha practically idolized, were all decisive in the development of the composer’s musical idiom who strove for synthesis. As Tibor Tallián pointed out, the composer was less intent on“learning personal or national motives from the French than the method of free, rational selection, of eclecticism.”[12]   


One the thickest roots was undoubtedly Hungarian folk music. He started folk music research while still at the Academy: “Following Bartók’s example I first went collecting folksongs on my own in 1910[13].  /…/ My first trip led me right to Transylvania and I worked there until the war broke out. I acquired the folklorist’s craft there. This folk music became my home and influenced me more than any master. Departing from Bartók’s environment, this folk music and the Paris school made me keep the narrow path on which I had set out and which was interrupted by the First World War.”[14]   


The first works and field service in the First World War

His first opus, a piano work comprising nine fantasias entitled Egy muzsikus írásaiból [Des écrits d’un musicien] was composed in 1912 and published by Rózsavölgyi next year. Lajtha’s splendidly beginning career was interrupted by the First World War. Aged 22, he went voluntarily to the front in 1914, motivated by the love of his country and a sense of duty. For his four-year-military service[15] as an artillary officer during which he was twice wounded, he was decorated several times. Nevertheless, the medals could not make up for the lost years.[16]  Apart from the Sonata for Piano (op. 3), no other composition was written in these years. Yet Lajtha tried to keep touch with music as well as he could: “I could not stop dealing with music and at the front, in the entrenchment, I always had a sketch-book close at hand into which I entered mostly counterpoint; I practised myself so as not to lose my musical skills once for all. My masters were Bach and Palestrina.”[17] In May 1917 he enumerated how he filled the time in the breaks between fights: he read Jean Christophe by Romain Rolland (Bartók called his attention to, saying Lajtha’s courage, uprightness, and talent reminded him of the hero of the novel), then Balzac, Dostojevski, medieval Marian legends, old French and old Italian short stories and Busoni’s analysis of music aesthetics; besides, he studied the orchestral works of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Debussy, Beethoven’s last string quartets,[18] then some weeks later “the score of Mozart’s Don Juan” and Bach’s fugues…[19]


Founding a family

The young composer and musicologist got acquainted with the student actress Róza Hollós playing the lute beautifully at the very beginning of the First World War. As both families disapproved of their marriage, they got married clandestinely after the war, in 1919. They had two sons: László who became a world-famous cancer researcher in England (he died in 1995) and Ábel living in the United States of America who is still an internationally acknowledged neurochemist, brain researcher. (For a decade and a half beginning with 1948 Lajtha could only maintain contact with his sons through correspondance. The letters always written in two copies[20] provide a rich storehouse of Lajtha-research.) Róza Hollós was a worthy intellectual partner of her husband: she was living exclusively for him even during her widowhood of several decades when she did her utmost for the recognition of her husband. Death took her at the age of 96 in 1990.


The years of unfolding and maturity between the two World Wars

Béla Bartók, Lajtha’s piano professor for a while, then his fatherly friend and supporter, made the highly significant remark about Lajtha to an English musicologist[21] as early as in 1920: “Besides Kodály and Lajtha we have no composers of any value.”[22] Two years later he called him “a remarkably talented and ventursome composer” remarking that in his early, boldly avant-garde piano works “he presented himself as a follower of the atonal school and as such, stands perhaps closest to Schönberg”.[23] In old age Lajtha mentioned that Schönberg had his early piano works performed in the society Privatafführung für Neue Musik[24] in Vienna. He soon departed, however, from the “Schoenbergian road” and it became characteristic of him from the twenties to reach back to earlier styles and construction manners as well as look for synthesis.


It was of great importance for his international fame that the foundation of an immensely rich American maecanes, Elisabeth Sprague-Coolidge not only rewarded his Third String Quartet (op. 11) with a considerable some of money in 1929 but also promoted the performance of the work in several American and European cities. The Second String Trio (op. 18, 1932) also belongs to Lajtha’s early great successes as a composer; its dedicatee Romain Rolland thanked for it with words of the highest appreciation.[25]    


In the period between the two World Wars his relations with the world of Parisian artists continued and developed. Several of his works were performed with great success and Lajtha was appreciated by the musicians and the public alike. When the international society Triton aiming at presenting new music was formed in 1932,[26] the first item of the introductory concert was the Third String Quartet (op. 11, 1929) by the Coolidge-Prize-winner Hungarian László Lajtha.[27] It was also in Paris that he found a publisher, Alphonse Leduc’s firm[28] he remained faithful to for three decades and a half.[29] (A minor part of his works was printed by Rózsavölgyi of Budapest, Universal of Vienna and Salabert of Paris.) He maintained friendly relations both with the Leduc family and several notabilities of the intellectual life of the time: “I can say, I met, had discussions and contact with the greatest figures of the time, moreover, through my work Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Huizinga, Madariaga, Foçillon, Thomas Mann, Florent Schmitt, Debussy were added to the row later and I could continue the list with Hindemith, Bartók, Kodály until Prokofiev who left for Russia from my flat after his last European trip … Honegger, Milhaud… I am practically unable to recount beside how many poets, writers, painters, great men I held my own through my simple human being …”[30] – he remembered to Zsuzsanna Erdélyi. One could long continue the line with further composers (Ravel, Roussel, Barraud, Poulenc, Ibert, Messiaen, Auric, Tibor Harsányi living in Paris etc.), performing artists (Nadia Boulanger, Robert Casadesus, André Navarra etc.), musicologists (Jacques Chailley, Constantin Břailoiu, and János Gergely living in Paris etc.).[31]


Eclecticism and new humanism  

Lajtha had equally strong ties to the west, notably to the Latin, classical culture, chiefly to Paris, which was unusual in Hungary at the time and to the east, that is to Hungary, particularly to Transylvania from the outset. However, it did not mean duality for him as he had the view that “through our Hungarian qualities we are linked to Latinism.[32] He asserted with a certain pride: „Bartók /…/ always called me Latin in some respect.”[33] Nevertheless, his contemporaries and perhaps even his present-day audiences were and are still perplexed by the widely ramifying roots, the eclecticism of Lajtha’s art. (As Tibor Tallián remarked:[34] contrary to the French where the “rational and refined harmony” of different styles and stylistic elements always passed for a tradition, the eclectic composition manner characteristic of Lajtha as well always had a pejorative overtone in Hungary because of the “command of national stylistic identity“.


Lajtha described his situation with a certain irony: “I have come to meet a strange fate. In Hungary, it is mostly claimed that the French-like quality is one of the chief characteristics of my music whereas in France Hungarian folklore is mentioned even in cases when I believe and can prove that there are no traces of folklore in that music.”[35] Folk music (just as early 20th-century French music) meant for him a way out of the “cul-de-sac” of romanticism: “the composer can be renewed in and strengthened by it if he enters into its spirit, its humanity and does not get stuck with its outward appearance; if folk elements get integrated into his idiom so organically and to such an extent that they speak thereby to every people.” He was convinced that “European culture was one and indiviseble”.[36] As he often stated, he wanted to write European music in the spirit of “new humanism”[37]. In a letter to his sons[38] he practically defined his own position in the history of music: “If there is something new in the role I wish to assume in the history of music, it lies in returning the music to humanism after the many »isms«. To humane man without immense gestures, so-called depths, the way music was in Haydn’s and Mozart’s hands.” He considered that strong national roots formed the basis of the music of international validity. The ideas he worded in connection with his highly appeciated master Debussy can also be regarded as part of his artistic creed: “Real greatness is able to give and accept, to be national and international at the same time. It widens the boundaries of national culture, accepts every trend of the universal human coming his way and does not know the narrow, secluded animosity mocked to be national.”[39] In the same radio programme he said: “he who shows the genuine native road to the art of his native country, who roots deeply in the traditions of ingenious culture, will create – if he is a genuine personality and a genuine artist – works of universal significance, however hard he tries to create something exclusively national.”[40]


The polymath

Lajtha moved with equal ease between west and east and among historical eras. He was fascinated by the latest technique, for example, he was one of the first to urge that folk music should be recorded together with its authentic environment, the customs pertaining to it and the dances on sound film. He also liked to go back into earlier centuries, which is borne out by his compositions on the one hand and his educational work, on the other, putting special emphasis on letting his students be acquainted with Renaissance, Baroque and classical masters. He saw European arts in their integrity from the ancient Greeks onwards and chose freely as a composer from various styles and stylistic elements. He was extremely susceptible to fine arts and literature. Moreover, the books in his estate (and the entries he made into them) prove that he was passionately interested in certain branches of sciences (physics, astronomy etc.) as well. He was a man of exceptional erudition, a musician of unparalleled wide intellectual horizon. As László Fábián[41] worded it, who knew him well: “He embodied the type of deeply cultured polymath and humanist.”[42]  


The diplomat of culture

Lajtha started his cultural diplomatic work in the late 1920s. At the First International Congress on Folk Art organized by the Committee of Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations in Prague in 1928 he attracted great attention by his paper on folk games and dances in Hungary (and their collecting methods, respectively).[43] From this time onwards he spent longer periods in Paris once or twice a year. Some years later he was already elected president of the folk music and folk dance department[44] of the International Committee of Folk Art and Folk Traditions[45]. As an expert he received several commissions: “In 1931 I became »expert permanent« of folk music at the »Institut International de Coopération Intellectuelle« of the League of Nations residing in Paris and later when Bartók was hindered in participating because of his other work /…/, the »expert musical« of »Lettres et Arts«[46].” In 1947 he took part in the institution of the International Folk Music Council functioning under the auspieces of UNESCO with headquarters in London and was “member of the executive board” to his death. As an organizer of research he was greatly appreciated and recognized; he kept performing this work whenever history provided an opportunity for it.  


Educational work, museum and radio functions, director’s posts

Lajtha started passing on his knowledge at the earliest time possible. Hardly had he returned from the front when he was already appointed teacher at the National Conservatoire in 1919. He taught mainly composition and chamber music and for a shorter while music theory, method, knowledge of music literature, string quartet playing. He introduced the teaching of Hungarian folk music and devoted himself to the schools’ choir. Lajtha was an extremely many-sided, legendarily exacting, strict and consistent teacher. Among his pupils we find János Ferencsik, Vilmos Tátrai,[47] János Starker, and András Kórodi.[48] Early 1947 Lajtha was appointed director, next summer director-general of the National Conservatoire. In 1949 his job was terminated.  (In 1951-1952 he could return to teaching among institutional frames for an academic year: he taught folk music practice for students of the Academy of Music.)     


He started working for the Hungarian National Museum at the age of twenty-one, first taking care of the instrument collection, then – as a successor to Bartók – heading the folk music department. In 1946 he was charged with “directing the Hungarian Ethnographic Museum and elaborating its work schedule”.[49] Some months later he had to resign his post of director. He was elected vice-president of the Hungarian Ethnographic Society in 1947.[50]


From 1935 to 1938 Lajtha directed the music programmes of the Hungarian Radio’s adult education classes, then was musical director of the Radio for a year and a half after 1945[51].  He had a decisive role not only in reorganizing the orchestra and developing it to a symphonic ensemble but by elaborating a high standard and balanced programme structure even in our view in laying the foundation of the Hungarian radio’s up-to-date musical culture. During his term as director, he prohibited the transmission of his own works. 


Writer on music

Indicative of Lajtha’s achievements as a musicologist and writer on music are the ninety works written in different genres.[52] The most remarkable products of his early years are the studies on the history of instruments. Of his works dealing with folk music the five volumes of Népzenei Monográfiák [Ethnomusical monographs] are the most remarkable, that is Szépkenyerűszentmártoni gyűjtés (1954), Széki gyűjtés (1954), Kőrispataki gyűjtés (1955), Sopronmegyei virrasztó énekek (1956), Dunántúli táncok és dallamok (1962) [Collection of Szépkenyerűszentmárton, Collection of Szék, Collection of Kőrispatak, Vigils of Sopron County, Dances and Melodies of Transdanubia]. Since Lajtha thought it best to preserve folk music in its original, sounding form, he devoted himself with tremendous energy to making the series generally referred to as Patria records[53] from 1937 to his death. He was also active as a journalist: his articles and music reviews appeared in Protestáns Szemle between 1927 and 1933, later he published articles in the Nouvelle Revue de Hongrie.


Church service

In addition to his many occupations Lajtha regularly performed church service. Beside being a presbyter,[54] he directed the Goudimel choir of the Reformed Church on Szabadság square from 1926 to 1944[55] to which an instrumental ensemble formed by him in 1941 was added. He prepared the concerts organized in the basement hall of the church capable of holding 450 with the thoroughness and uncompromising artistic attitude characteristic of him. He both conducted and held educational lectures, analyzing the works.[56] Lajtha himself was Calvinist, his wife Róza Hollós Catholic, but he never made a difference between religions.  For him faith was “the only everlasting force. You may be disappointed with everything, but you can never be disappointed with humanity and Christ if you have faith. If this faith is lost, the vacuity of this chaotic world will befall us.”[57]


The year spent in London (1947-1948) and the fourteen-year-long state of neglect in Hungary

In 1947-1948 László Lajtha and his family were staying in London in so far never-experienced sound financal circumstances and comfort for a year. He received a commission from the director-producer Georg Hoellering (he was working with for the second time[58]) to write music to a film based on T. S. Eliot’s[59] verse drama Murder in the Cathedral[60] (about the martyrdom of Thomas Becket). In the English capital Lajtha started composing his comic opera in two acts A kék kalap [The Blue Hat] to a French libretto by the Spaniard Salvador de Madariaga. When the film music-writing agreement ended, a lot of people expressed their fear for Lajtha to return to Communist Hungary. However, he could not be convinced to stay; his heart drew him back. At home, he did not hide his opposition to Communist rule; the great number of friends in the western countries made him suspicious anyway. For fourteen years he applied in vain for permission to travel, the only time he received a passport to attend a congress in Copenhague he was merely allowed to stay for a few days.[61] He was refused to leave the country even when he was elected among the immortals of the French Academy (Institut de France – Académie des Beaux Arts) in 1955,[62] although such an honour had never been bestowed on a Hungarian composer before László Lajtha. [63] His works were seldom performed in Hungary;[64] he was deprived of all means of subsistence by losing not only his leading posts but practically all possibility to earn money. It was no relief when he was awarded the Kossuth-Prize for his ethnomusicological work in 1951. He distributed the money that went with it among the more needy and humiliated people. He never surrendered, never abandoned his principles. In his eyes compromise was a sin.[65]  He kept composing intensively in times of the greatest hardship; there emerged a whole range of symphonies (among others his seventh symphony op. 63 written as a desperate echo of the suppressed revolution of 1956[66]), chamber music and church compositions. His music did not meet the requirements of the cultural policy of the time:  Lajtha was considered a follower “of western European cosmopoliticism and formalism”.[67] Their common work with Áron Tamási (A bújdosó lány [The girl in exile], 1953) was qualified a chauvinistic, irredentist incitement and banned. In 1958 he wrote: “this season no works of mine were performed at public concerts in Hungary, moreover, at the popular concerts to be given in the Károlyi garden this summer an orchestral work by about twenty Hungarian composers starting with Kodály will be performed, I am the only composer who has been left out completely, who has no work to be played. It  has naturally political reasons, which I was also told.”[68] In the meantime his works were regularly performed in the west by outstanding artists, received favourable critical acclaim, yet Lajtha could only know of these successes from his friends’s letters living in the western countries and from newspaper articles sent to him.[69] He considered the possibility of emigrating repeatedly. His string quartets, church music, and particularly his symphonies were received by the western audiences with great enthusiasm. (Lajtha’s remarkable symphony output is unique in the history of 20th-century-Hungarian music). When reporting on the Paris success of his last three symphonies (seventh, eigth and ninth), one of his French reviewers who knew excellently his path of life and oeuvre, called him one of the greatest symphonic composers of the 20th century[70] remarking that it was in this genre that the Hungarian master was both the most personal and of the greatest international validiaty. Lajtha’s independence from Hungarian (and partly from foreign) musical trends is mostly characteristic of this last period of life, of this more than a decade spent in “internal exile”. As Melinda Berlász puts it, Lajtha was then “an exceptional individualistic creative phenomenon representing a striking contrast to expectations and obligations.”[71]        


From the summer of 1951 onwards the Ministry of Public Education gave support to the establishment of a steady folk music research group directed by Lajtha and provided for its regular work. From 1953 to his death Lajtha spared no effort to visit localities in Transdanubia with his young colleagues Zsuzsanna Erdélyi and Margit Tóth and performed invaluable work by making research into, transcribing and ordering systematically historical, vocal and instrumental folk music. 


The only way to keep contact with friends in France and Western Europe in all these years was correspondence. He was musical adviser to the French Institute in Budapest until his death making not only suggestions concerning concert programmes and the artist to be invited, but was also involved in organizing. For his work he was remunerated; this is now the Institute wished to contribute to  his subsistence.[72] 


Travels in Europe, new hopes – and the sudden end 

At the end of his life it must have been a great comfort to him that at long last he was allowed to travel again to the West in 1962 and was celebrated in Oslo, London, Paris, Strasbourg and Monte-Carlo. Seven years after having been elected member of the French Academy, he could finally take his chair, delivered scholarly lectures, conducted and attended the première of his works, was on the jury of a composers’ competition and could meet members of his family (he got to know his sister-in-laws and two of his four gandchildren then), friends and his publisher Leduc who offered him and his wife an one-year invitiation. He intended to return to Hungary for some months only. While at home, he threw himself once again into folk music collecting and was full of plans and energy concerning compositions and first performances. However, a few days after his return from his last collecting trip,[73] on February 16th, 1963, the second cardial infarction put a sudden end to his life.


It speaks eloquently for the lack of appreciation in Hungary that for a long while after his death there was only a commemorative plaque on the Lajtha-house (Budapest, fifth disctrict, Váci street 79[74]) stating that Franz Joseph I visited the catafalque of one of his ministers there.[75] The lines commemorating Lajtha were later placed into the ornamental frame of the same plaque.  His greatest recognition was the Hungarian Heritage Prize given posthumously in 2001[76].   


Opus numbering, work groups

László Lajtha provided 69 compositions of his with opus numbers, six of which were lost[77] and the opus number of a seventh lost work was given to an early composition.[78]  Three opus numbers comprise more than one work.[79] He did not number his folksong arrangements and some of his art music compositions either.[80] Numerous works are still unpublished. He created instrumental works in the first place; the bulk of his oeuvre is made up by 9 symphonies and 10 string quartets.


Work groups:

·      stage works (3 ballets and 1 comic opera)

·      orchestral works (16 altogether, among them 9 symphonies, 5 suites)

·      works for chamber orchestra (4, among them two sinfoniettas) 

·      choral works (4)

·      church music (5 works, among them 2 masses, Magnificat)

·      vocal solo works with instrumental accompaniment (3 works of which only Trois nocturnes has an opus number)

·      chamber music (27 works, among them 10 string quartets) 

·      works for solo instruments (7 works for piano, 2 without opus number, 1 work for flute) 

·      film music (4, three of which are provided with opus number)  

·      folk music arrangements (without opus number)





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